There was a countdown and a boom and within seconds a heavy chunk of Britain’s once proud and world-beating industrial heritage was gone.
“I have mixed feelings,” said Tony Evans after watching the demolition of the Redcar blast furnace in Teesside at 9 Wednesday. He had worked there from fitter to production manager for decades; he had met a young engineer who became his wife and made friendships that would last forever.
“I’m certainly not happy to see it go. I’m sad. But I hope there will be a bright future and that we can hand this area over to the next generation,” he said.
The blast furnace, as tall as St Paul’s Cathedral, London, had dominated the area and its skyline since 1979. When it opened, it was the second largest blast furnace in Europe, producing 10,000 tonnes of iron per day for the steelworks. It was ultra-modern and was to represent the start of a new era for British steelmaking. For a time it did. But soon the industry narrative changed to one of gradual decline.
Evans said he looked in awe at buildings like the blast furnace, the same way friends looked at the Lake District landscapes. “To see it go down so quickly, especially because I’ve spent so much of my life there, is sad. But industries change. Hopefully net zero and hydrogen will bring jobs to my kids and their kids. When you work in a place like the blast furnace , you think it’s there for life, but things move on.”
The structure came down after what has been one of the most complex and challenging demolition projects in recent years.
Some people suggested that it did not need to come down at all, that it should be preserved as an industrial heritage tourist attraction. The campaign was supported by the band Maxïmo Parkwhose lead singer, Paul Smith, argued that it could be “a source of local pride”.
The Conservative Mayor of Tees Valley, Ben Houchen, disagree. He said the cost would be astronomical. At the demolition on Wednesday, he said: “It’s a bit of a strange day, a lot of people will be sad to see it go. But there is great support for the plans we have to rebuild this site and create the workplaces of the future.”
He said campaigners trying to keep the blast furnace were “an extremely small minority” and that most people back his plans.
“We must be proud of the industrial past we have, but we must create an industrial future, and although the landscape will change forever, the plan today is to create a new landscape that we can be proud of for many years to come ,” he said.
When the blast furnace opened, it was intended that Teesside would “long remain one of the most important steel-producing areas in the world”. The front page of the British Steel Corporation’s newspaper, Steel News, carried the cheery headline “Light up your hearts!”. It said there were “cheers, smiles and kisses as the lighting of the giant Redcar blast furnace heralded a new era for British steelmaking”.
But that bright future never happened. The furnace, once a symbol of proud industrial prosperity and success, was mothballed in 2010.
There was renewed hope in 2012 when the Thai-based conglomerate SSI bought the steel mill. But it wasn’t to be. The blast furnace went cold forever in 2015that draws the curtain on a century of steelmaking in Redcar.
On Wednesday, 175 kg of explosives were used in 40 places to destroy the casting houses, the dust collector, the charge conveyors and the blast furnace itself. Spectators watched from outside a 250 meter long exclusion zone. The boom could be heard at least 20 miles away.
The demolition was carried out by Thompsons of Prudhoe, workers having spent months removing hazardous materials and preparing the site. The fact that it had been exposed to the elements for years had added to the complexity of the project, said the project manager, Mike Stoddart.
“We’re working from the bottom up instead of the top down using the explosives,” Stoddart said. “It’s a very challenging project, that’s the scale of it. It is heavy. We can use burning equipment, but two and a half inch steel and cast iron bars on the inside of the blast furnace don’t cut easily.”
Stoddart suggested that demolitions, many people would remember from watching TV shows like Blue Peter, were a thing of the past. “There’s a lot of engineering involved in demolition now, more than people might realize. They think it’s like [the steeplejack] Fred Dibnah and wrecking balls. In my eyes, that view is long gone.”